5 Reasons the Montreal Canadiens Are the Favorites in Eastern Conference Final
The Montreal Canadiens, set to face off against the New York Rangers Saturday, will be playing in their second Eastern Conference Final in five seasons. While few may have predicted the Habs would make it this far this postseason, now that they have, anything can happen.
In many ways, this team is very similar to the one that ended up losing in the third round in five games back in 2009-10. The most obvious example is how the Habs are right now riding a hot goalie in Carey Price just like back then when they had Jaroslav Halak.
Also of note, this team just knocked off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins. Four years ago, the Canadiens beat the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the first round. And, finally, just like in 2009-10, they’ll be facing an old Atlantic Division opponent in Round 3.
However, that’s where the similarities end. Whereas the Canadiens were arguable underdogs in every round up to and including that conference final against the Philadelphia Flyers, they should very much be considered the favorites against New York. Here are five reasons why:
5. Home-Ice Advantage
Home-ice advantage is not the be all and end all, as proven by how the Habs have just won two playoff series without it. However, it is something, and Habs fans will be happy to know this is the first time since 1993 Montreal has held it this far into the playoffs.
But by also taking into account how Montreal just barely had a better home record than road record during the regular season and the Rangers were an impressive 25-14-2 away from New York, one can make a good case that location is a mere formality here. That is why it takes the No. 5 slide.
4. The Regular Season
If for no other reason than how they fared during this past regular season, the Canadiens should be considered the better team relative to the Rangers.
For starters, the Habs ended the regular season ahead of the Rangers with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference (46-28-8). The Rangers, conversely, had the fifth best (45-31-6). Admittedly, that’s not that big of a difference, but the Canadiens did take the season series as well with a 2-1 record (the Rangers were 1-1-1).
This is obviously the postseason, where the regular season doesn’t mean all that much (which is why this is the No. 4 slide), but there are a few things to be taken away from the three games the two teams played over the past seven months.
For instance, this series will presumably mark the first time this season goaltenders Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist will face each other (in each game one backup was playing).
Also of note? Each game ended in a shutout, so get ready for what should, in theory, be a serious goaltending duel.
3. Carey Price
Price enters this series at the top of his game, with a .926 save percentage and 2.15 goals-against average these playoffs, which should be a real concern for New York.
What’s perhaps scarier (or at least should be for the Rangers) is that these aren’t even Price’s career-best postseason stats. In 2010-11, he posted a .934 save percentage and 2.11 GAA, meaning he has room to be even better than he has been.
For example, against, oh, I don’t know, let’s say the Rangers in his career, he has allowed just 28 goals in 15 games (8-6-1 record with five shutouts) with a .933 save percentage.
Put simply, just like Price clearly got into the heads of the Boston Bruins in the second round, he has the potential to be a difference-maker for the better against New York. While that’s true of Lundqvist as well, the latter is also more likely to be a detriment to his team.
2. Henrik Lundqvist
While Lundqvist is a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie (and Price is not), it’s hard to give the New York goaltender the advantage in nets in this head-to-head matchup.
To elaborate, Lundqvist won the trophy two seasons ago, when he was 30 years old, meaning two things. First: at 32, he’s not in his prime any longer and is more likely to be tired right now. Second: Price, at 26, still has time in his career to win the award before one can say definitively one is better than the other.
What one can say definitively, however, is that Price is better when playing against New York than Lundqvist is against Montreal. Lundqvist has a simply mediocre 13-12-2 record and .897 save percentage against the Habs in his career.
Admittedly, yes, Lundqvist has won a record five straight whenever his series have gone the full seven games. However, there’s no guarantee this particular series goes the distance, especially if the Habs are able to solve Lundqvist early and often. There’s every indication they will.
1. The Potentially Imminent Return of Galchenyuk
Both Montreal and New York are, admittedly, teams with some depth up front. However, Montreal is likely about to get even deeper with the addition of Alex Galchenyuk, who has missed the entire postseason up to now with a knee injury.
According to TSN, Galchenyuk has been cleared for contact and would in theory represent another top-six forward in a lineup absolutely rife with them. Montreal would now, in theory, have 10 forwards in its lineup capable of playing an offensive role (Rene Bourque, Daniel Briere, David Desharnais, Lars Eller, Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, Brian Gionta, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and Thomas Vanek).
To be clear, Galchenyuk is not exactly a game-breaking talent, at least not at this stage of his career. His return doesn’t guarantee a Habs victory. It’s not the same as Wayne Gretzky rejoining your team. But just like New York got an offensive boost when Chris Kreider came back, the Habs likely will, too.
Considering Montreal already leads the playoffs with 3.27 goals per game (New York is last among teams that are still alive with 2.43 goals per game), that is seriously bad news for the Rangers.
So, no, Galchenyuk returning on his own isn’t the headline here. It’s that, should Galchenyuk return as planned, Montreal will have yet another weapon at its disposal and will likely have to take out one of either Michael Bournival, Dale Weise or Brandon Prust to fit him in.
While Galchenyuk is an upgrade over any one of those players, Bournival’s speed is a great asset while both Weise and Prust are former Rangers that will likely be just as much of a threat to want to bury New York. It’s a difficult position for Montreal head coach Michel Therrien to be in, but it’s also a good problem to have...just not for New York.
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